In Ojibway mythology, Nanabush is a mischievous trickster, shapeshifter, and culture hero. Journalist, playwright, and author Drew Hayden Taylor uses this figure, and his manic spirit, as inspiration in his first novel for adults.
Recently widowed 35-year-old Maggie is struggling with the responsibilities of being chief of the Otter Lake native reservation while simultaneously raising her aloof teenage son, Virgil. Maggie and Virgil are both reeling from the recent death of Maggie’s mother, Lillian, their last connection to the “old-fashion Indian” way of life.
When John, a mysterious white man, comes into town riding a vintage Indian Chief motorcycle, Maggie falls in love, but Virgil becomes suspicious. Virgil enlists his reclusive Uncle Wayne to discover the truth about John, resulting in a series of antics that would make Nanabush proud. Along the way, John prompts Maggie and Virgil to reconsider their understanding of family, history, and heritage.
Taylor uses John’s presence on the reservation to explore the political, religious, and cultural challenges facing the residents as they struggle to reconcile their Ojibway beliefs and traditions with broader Canadian culture and its modern conveniences. Conflict – both physical and philosophical – and compromise are themes running throughout the book. Those familiar with Taylor’s non-fiction will find his approach here recognizable: beneath the playful and light-hearted humour are complex emotions and thoughtful analyses of difficult subjects.
As Maggie, Virgil, and the rest of Otter Lake deal with the white interloper, Taylor brings a modern twist to ancient native folklore. Motorcycles and Sweetgrass is a charming story about the importance of balance and belief – and a little bit of magic – in everyone’s life.